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Travel Guide > Asia > Singapore

Singapore History & Politics

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Pre-Colonial Singapore

Hard as it is to believe, the majority of Singaporeans have little to no knowledge of Singapore’s pre-colonial history. This is hardly surprising as it is hard to find a museum or a school textbook that has a dedicated chapter on Singapore’s pre-colonial history. Slowly, it is being forgotten - a sad state of affairs as this chapter of Singapore's past is rich with mythos.  

A popular Malay legend has it that long ago, a Sumatran prince by the name of Sang Nila Utama chanced upon the island of Temasek while he was out hunting one day. Intrigued, he decided to visit the island. Upon his arrival, he encountered a strange animal that he believed was a lion. The prince regarded this as a good omen and he went out to found a city, which he named Singapura, meaning ‘lion city’ in Malay.

Archaeological evidence and historical records have shown that far from being a great city as implied in the legend, Singapore was more a small Malay fishing village. Records of Chinese sailors as early as the 3rd century refer to an island called Pu Luo Chung, which might have been Singapore. Historical records have also indicated that the island of Temasek was a trading post of the Johore Sultanate in the 14th to 16th century. When the European powers arrived in Southeast Asia in the 15th century, they began their imperial expansion and colonized many ports in the region. The Portuguese and Dutch both managed to colonize ports like Melaka and Batavia but the British failed to establish a similar foothold in the region. It was against this backdrop that Stamford Raffles, lieutenant-governor of Java, sought permission to establish a new British station to secure British trade routes in the region.

Colonial Singapore

Raffles chose Singapore because of its strategic location along the trade routes to China and also for the fact that no other European power had laid claim to it yet. He quickly threw his support behind Hussein, the eldest son of the old sultan and who was in the midst of a succession struggle over the throne. By proclaiming Hussein sultan and installing him in residence in Singapore, Raffles legitimized the British claims on the island in spite of the fact that the Portuguese had a treaty with Hussein’s younger brother. Another treaty was signed with the Temenggong of Johor and this, coupled with his treaty with Hussein, allowed Raffles to use Singapore in exchange for an annual allowance for the two individuals. Singapore thus became property of the British East India Company and by extension, a colony of Britain.

Raffles left Colonel William Farquhar in charge of Singapore as he had to return to Java to resume his duties. However, he returned three years later to find that though Singapore was a thriving colony, there was no proper organization, poor sanitation and rising cases of crime and violence. To ammend this, he drew out a new town plan which would introduce order and structure, and do away with the haphazard buildings that characterized Singapore up till then. Aspects of the town plan can still be seen in present day Singapore. Raffles Place, for example, was levelled out according to his town plan.

In keeping with the British government's divide-and-rule policy, the town plan divided the population of Singapore into racial categories. Zones were created to give each race and dialect group an area to call their own. The Europeans were granted land in what is today known as the Colonial District. The Chinese, including different dialect groups such Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese, were located around the mouth and southwest of the Singapore River. Hindu Indians congregated in Kampong Kapor and Serangoon Road while Gujarati and other Muslim merchants occupied the Arab Street area. Tamil Muslim traders operated in the Market Street area and the Malays lived mainly on the northern fringes of the city. These different zones still exist to a certain extent today albeit more by tradition than by law.

Due to proper town planning and Singapore’s free trade policy, the island colony prospered. The number of immigrations soared as many flocked to Singapore in search of riches due to tales of overnight millionaires. However, the living conditions for new immigrants were still harsh and opium addiction became prominent. Many male Chinese immigrants who came to Singapore looking for work could not bring their wives along. Thus they often married local Malay women. This eventually led to a new hybrid culture known as Peranakan. Singapore continued to prosper and grow in the 19th and early 20th century. This period of prosperity was then broken by events of World War II.

Japanese Occupation of Singapore

The Japanese invaded Singapore in February 1942. Within days, the British surrendered and the island of Singapore fell under Japanese rule. However, the quick surrender did not mean that there was no resistance. Many soldiers, and even some civilians, fought gallantly against the Japanese. Today, their heroic deeds are commemorated at museums like the Changi Prison Museum and Chapel.

Life under the Japanese rule was harsh, especially for the Chinese. Many who opposed the Japanese were either sent to work on the infamous Death Railway or imprisoned at Changi Prison for regular torture. Operation Sook Ching was a horrifying campaign launched by the Japanese to eliminate Chinese opposition. An estimated 45,000 Chinese were killed and tortured during this campaign.

Singapore was also renamed Syonan, which means Light of the South in Japanese. Public signs were changed to Japanese, clocks were adjusted to Tokyo time and a new Japanese currency was introduced for the island. As the war dragged on, inflation broke the roof and supplies of food and essentials fell to such an extent that people died of malnutrition and disease. 

The war ended with the Japanese surrendering the island back to the British on 14 August 1945. Even though Singapore was back under British rule, the war had cast doubt on the ability of the British to protect Singapore and some Singaporeans began to dream of independence.

Singapore after World War II

Politicians began negotiations with the British government for constitutional reform which led to a planned transfer of power to Singapore after increasing pressure for independence. Elections were held in 1955 to approve a new constitution and it was implemented in 1957. The negotiations for independence were complicated by the Communist Emergency which lasted from 1948 to 1960. The violent struggle by the Malayan Communist Party resulted in the British declaring a state of emergency for large parts of the 12 years and delayed possible progress on independence for Singapore.

The post-war years were dominated by the emergence of a thriving political scene with many new political parties coming to the forefront. Of these, the People’s Action Party (PAP) stood out. Led by a Cambridge-educated lawyer, Lee Kuan Yew, the party won its first elections in 1959 and since then has gone on to win every single election. When Lee became Singapore’s first prime minister, he quickly sought the security of a merger with Malaya.

In 1963, Singapore merged with Malaya, Sarawak and modern-day Sabah to form the Federation of Malaya. However, this political marriage was fraught with problems and cracks soon developed in the merger as differences came to the fore.

Singapore’s Independence

The lack of egalitarian policies in Malaya led to fears among the Singaporean Chinese that their rights might be undermined. Tensions peaked when Singapore became the scene of racial riots which resulted in the death of several civilians. Viewing Singapore as a liability, the Federation of Malaya kicked Singapore out in 1965.

Singapore’s complete independence was announced on public television on August 9, 1965 by a tearful Lee Kuan Yew. His announcement has gone down as perhaps the most significant event in Singapore’s history. The tiny island of Singapore, with no natural resources and surrounded by larger neighbours faced a bleak and uncertain future. However, Singapore’s forced independence resulted in one of history’s greatest example of rising from the ashes.

With no natural resources, Lee focused on maximizing the only resource Singapore had: human capital. By setting up compulsory education and raising the education level of Singaporeans while maximizing business opportunities along the way, Lee was able to grow Singapore’s economy at an impressive rate. Per capita income quadrupled between 1965 and 1977. Economic developments came along with social restrictions that included relatively harsh punishments for minor crimes and censorship of the media.

Many social changes also took place during this period. The British announcement of their complete military withdrawal from Singapore in 1967 led to the National Service Act. The Act called for compulsory conscription of all able-bodied male Singapore citizens upon reaching the age of 18. To accommodate the growing number of Singaporeans, the government passed the Housing and Development Act to provide affordable housing for Singaporeans. This led to Housing Development Board buildings or HDB flats sprouting out all over Singapore. Over the years, the number of HDB flats has increased significantly and have provided many Singaporeans with proper housing.

Modern Singapore

Within 200 years, Singapore has undergone a radical metamorphosis from a backwater fishing village into a prosperous port.  Affordable housing, national service and compulsory education have been crucial to Singapore’s development in its short history. With the addition of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system in the late 1980s, Singapore’s public transport system has become efficient and made getting round the island easier.

The physical landscape of Singapore has also changed dramatically since independence. In addition to HDB flats, many skyscrapers and shopping malls have been added. The growth of the heavy industries like petro-chemical refining, shipbuilding and manufacturing has led to many new and large factories being built in designated areas on the island. Land reclamation has also increased Singapore’s land mass and extended her shoreline. The relatively new Integrated Resorts and transformation of the river area has rebranded Singapore as an exciting tourist attraction.

Despite all the success, there have been threats to Singapore’s continued prosperity in recent times. The Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, the SARS outbreak in 2003, the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009 and the crisis caused by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2009 all had significant impact on the country’s economy. These have all contributed to rising cost of living, falling wages and the widening of the income gap.

However, many economists regard the future of Singapore positively. The economy is slowly rebounding from the fallout of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the two integrated resorts have just opened, the first Formula One night race is still held annually and the first Youth Olympics took place in August 2010. Although there have been crises throughout Singapore’s history, she has always managed to rebound and this puts her in good stead for future challenges.


Type of Government in Singapore

Singapore is a parliamentary democracy based on a Westminister system of unicarmel parliamentary government representing various constituencies. The unicarmel parliament has currently 84 elected members plus nine Nominated Members of Parliament and one Nonconstituency Member of Parliament.  Nine of the Members of Parliament are from single-member constituencies and the other 75 are from group representation constituencies. Group representation constituencies are also unique to Singapore and it is an attempt to ensure that there is representation in parliament of members of the Malay, Indian and other minority communities.

Executive power essentially lies with the Cabinet which is headed by the Prime Minister, who is usually the leader of the ruling party. Since 2004, the post has been occupied by Lee Hsien Loong, son of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore also has a president who is elected by popular vote. Although the president is technically the head of the state, the position has historically been a ceremonial one and is true even up to today. At the time of writing, the president of Singapore is S.R. Nathan.

Singapore’s legal system is based on the British system, although there are some differences, and the independence of the judiciary is enshrined in the constitution. Some of the differences include the absence of jury trial in the Singapore system. General elections held in Singapore are free from irregularities and vote-rigging but the opposition political parties have criticized the ruling party for manipulating the electoral system so as to gain an advantage during elections.

Political Parties in Singapore

It has often been said that Singapore has a one-party system but this is not entirely true. There are a number of political parties in Singapore but they have all been overshadowed by the PAP (People’s Action Party), which has been the ruling party since independence. The PAP's uninterrupted governance of Singapore has invited  criticisms of their manipulating the electoral system, together with the media, for their benefit. They have routinely won overwhelming majorities at elections but recent years has seen their stronghold slipping slowly.

Though there are many opposition parties in Singapore, only a handful are more notable. These include the Worker’s Party of Singapore, the Singapore Democratic Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance. Although all three parties have won seats in the general elections before, the PAP is still without doubt the most dominant party in Singapore at the time of writing.

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